Alberta Wildies: Aerial Surveys Used To Substantiate Culls Are Prone To Extreme Inaccuracy

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Spirit of the Basin by Melody Perez

Written by:  Heather Clemenceau

Artwork by:  Melody Perez

Whether it’s conducted for horses, bison, wolf, or deer, aerial surveys usually precede a savage end for our free-roaming,wild, and migratory animals. It usually becomes apparent that a cull is being considered whenever an aerial survey is conducted.  But the process of conducting aerial counts to justify a cull is profoundly flawed.  The scientific evidence to support arguments against the horses just isn’t there.  Counts require low flying and intensive and systematic coverage of the landscape that are more likely to motivate, and less likely to detect, horse escape behaviour.  The anti-predator behaviour of the horse (and other prey animals such as deer) is characterized by grouping together and running to escape, which compounds observers’ ability to make accurate counts, as does aircraft altitude, weather conditions, season, vegetation, and animal mobility. At least one study of wild horse behaviour in New Zealand’s Kaimanawa Mountains has shown that aerial sampling, which is then extrapolated to the entire population, can be highly inaccurate and imprecise: 

“Comparisons between the records of the counters and two observers show that, of the 136 marked horses located immediately prior to the helicopter count, 34 (25%) were counted more than once, a further 23 (17%) may have been counted more than once, and 13 horses (9.6%) were not counted. The helicopter count yielded 228 horses and was 16.9% larger than the estimate of 195.

Untamed Longing by Melody PerezIn addition, counts that are made only once a year for 2-3 days are not generally considered to be a robust form of wildlife management when compared to counts done 3 times a year, such as in the spring after what is often a harsh winter, after the foals are born, and before a capture is being considered.   Reliable methods to estimate wild horse populations should be important to Alberta Environment & Parks (formerly  Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – ESRD)  because otherwise they will continue to make programmatic decisions that aren’t supported by science.  A single aerial census is not terribly useful since the horses are pretty scarce and elusive when spread out over 6 million acres, which results in a weak inference about horses that are neither abundant nor widespread in the Equine Zones. Not only is the aerial count slipshod because it is only one sample, E&P doesn’t know how many horses are too many.    E&P allow the “Feral Horse Advisory Committee,” with representation from several stakeholder groups, such as oil and gas, forestry, cattle ranchers, capture permit holders and hunters, (groups with a vested interest in removing wild horses) input into culls.

By most accounts there are somewhere between 850-980 wild horses currently grazing a vast area close to six million acres in 6 Cimmaron stallion of the Sand Wash Basin in Colorado by Melody Perezequine zones in Alberta Canada.  The cattle being grazed consist in numbers about 10 times the number of equids in the 6 zones.

It is falsely claimed by E&D that wild horses have no predators.  These wild horses, like all other ungulates, do have natural predators.  If not, why then would the E&P (ESRD) advertise on their website hunting and trapping licence for cougars, wolves and bears?  It’s also falsely claimed by the Feral Horse Advisory Committee that horses compete with wildlife and cattle for forage.  If so,  how many skinny cattle come off the range each year?  The government’s own study by R.E. Salter, who has a master’s degree in zoology – did not document forage or behavioural competition with either wildlife or domestic cattle.  Studies in British Columbia showed that overgrazing and erosion were caused by too many cattle and not horses.

The New Zealand Study On Aerial Surveillance:

Burro Baby Blues by Melody PerezBy the grace of (insert the deity of your choice), a cull was not held this year. The decision to cull any of these horses should not lie in the interpretation that they are feral rather than wild; feral is a human construct that serves only to stigmatize the horses.

You only have to look at these horses to see that they are almost evolving into a distinct breed, rather like the Canadian horse.  They deserve heritage status and advocates should demand that “managing” these unique and iconic herds be conducted using a biological basis which should never include inputs from groups that seek to eliminate them.

There should be a ban on selling captured horses to slaughterhouses (in part because there is not six months worth of drug history on any of them) therefore those doing so should be heavily fined.

 

 

 

 

Contact:

Minister Shannon Phillips
323 Legislature Building
10800 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
Canada T5K 2B6
Phone: (780) 427-2391
Email: AEP.Minister@gov.ab.ca

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About heatherclemenceau

Hopefully as I've grown older I've also grown wiser, but one thing I've definitely become cognizant of is the difference between making a living and making a life. Frequently outraged by some of life's cruelties, and respect diversity. But.....I don't suffer fools gladly, and occasionally, this does get me into some trouble! I have the distinction of being the world's worst golfer - no wait, I do believe that there is a gypsy in Moldavia who is a worse golfer than I. Nor am I much of a dancer - you won't see a booty-shakin' flygirl routine from me! I'm also not the kind of cook who can whip up a five-course meal on a radiator either! And I've never figured out how to get an orchid to bloom a second time. I love to discuss literature, science, philosophy, and sci-fi , or even why Seinfeld is funny on so many levels. Words move me. I'm very soft-hearted about most things, especially animals, but I have a stoicism about me that is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. I do have a definite edge and an often "retro-adolescent" sense of humour at times. I'm a big advocate of distributed computing projects to advance science. Check out http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ if you want to find out more. I'm an eclectic (but not crazy) vegetarian, and as such, it's a personal practice of mine to seduce innocent meat-eaters into cruising the (salad) bars at every opportunity. You would be powerless to resist. I was recently surprised to find that a computer algorithm concluded that I write like Dan Brown, which is funny because I didn't think Dan Brown could actually write. Check out your own style - http://iwl.me/ Oh, and I love impractical shoes and funky hats.

2 responses »

  1. Thanks Heather for bringing this junk-science to light. These “surveys” occur in the Short Hills Park on clear but snow covered days when deer are yarding for warmth. The hyperinflated count is used to justify deer hunting there…even of 65lb fawns. The deer counting technique is highly suspect but even if they correctly counted every single (can MNR count up to 200 on one hand) it is a stretch to say that every deer lives within this Park with a radius of 2km. That is like counting cars in front of a house on Christmas Day saying 1) no one lives there or 2) 15 people live there. Of course when counting deer in Short Hills Park MNR claim the latter. Pls post your article to Short Hills Wildlife Alliance.
    Not to leave out my first love, horses, and the purpose of your piece, I really appreciated your comments about using the term “Feral” vs “Wild” horses. Junk-semantics. I would not eat horse meat under any circumstances but you make an excellent point about the lack of 6mo drug testing.

  2. PS. I wrote to Minister Phillips telling her we in Niagara are watching how she handles this issue. I reiterated the info about inflated aerial count numbers to support a cull and the public safety issue with respect to drugs history of captured horses.

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